FCC Commissioner Adelstein Kicks Off Academic Pre-Conference in Memphis

Hello all from the Memphis Tennessee Convention Center. While the Free Press National Conference on Media Reform does not officially open until tomorrow, Free Press and the Social Sciences Research Center (SSRC) have co-sponsored an academic pre-conference for today, with a goal of promoting greater coordination between academics and activists and encouraging more academics to get involved in the substantive policy debates.

Craig Calhoun of SSRC and Robert McChesney of Free Press did a good job introducing the conference. But the real star of the morning was FCC Commissioner Joathan Adelstein.

I couldn’t have wished for a better speech. If Adelstein doesn’t read my blog (and I rather doubt he does), I take it as prof that “great minds think alike.” He savaged the neo-cons and others who rely on “faith based” research and regulation, and an FCC that has allowed the corporations it regulates to control both the framing of the debate and the information used for policy. Because the FCC has consciously decided not to “burden” the industry with reporting requirements that would provide an accurate picture of the industry (altough they provide exactly this information to investors and the SEC), the “expert agency” is now “starved for information” and reduced to writing “advocacy pieces” for industry or reports devoid of meaningful data and analysis.

On the plus side, according to Adelstein, we have truth on our side and a massive reserve of talent and ability. We have already accomplished amazing things. With greater coordination and effort, we can do more.

Details below . . . .

So here I am, missing my favorite science fiction convention for what has become (to use the words of Commissioner Adelstein) the Super Bowl of Media Reform. They expect 3000 people starting tomorrow. Today’s pre-conference has probably about 500 or so in attendance.

After a brief intro by Joe Karaginis who (with Rik Panganiban, have worked on bringing academics and acitivists together for the last few years), Craig Calhoun welcomed us and gave a statement for what he hoped would come out of the conference. He traced the history of activist academics such as Milton Friedman had helped to create the current culture in Washington in which Libertarian free-market thinking has become the dominant paradigm. Progressive academics therefore need to recognize that there is nothing inherently contradictory in acdemics getting involved in policy fights and trying to influence policy. To the contrary, “activist” v. “academic” is a “false dichotomy” and one we need to try to erase.

Bob McChesney reenforced the point by giving a personal view of how he has tried to involve academics in the policy debate and increase the collaboration between academics and activists. McChesney recounted how at the first NCMR in Madison three years ago, no academics showed up, and no one missed them. There was just no expectation that academics would show up at a non-academic conference. Now things have changed. We have a number of academics doing important research, and we need to elevate this to the next level of coordinating rigorous academic work with a progressive agenda.

Then came Adelstein. As regular readers know, I think Adelstein and his fellow Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps have done a tremendous job. Klinenberg describes Adelstein as a “populist commissioner,” and boy did he do himself proud in that role today.

Adelstein began by drawing attention to a story in the local paper in which he referred to the NCMR as the “Super Bowl” of media reform.
He applauded the academics and activists for accomplishing amazing things already, especially “awakening the sleeping giant” of the American public and winning the Prometheus case in 2004 that reversed the FCC’s 2003 Order relaxing ownership rules. He called on the academics present to become a “progressive think tank” to take on media corportions in Washington.

“This much brain power should make the media conglomerates shake in their boots.” Said Adelstein. He expressed hope that the new, Democratic Congress would be more open to the “inconvenient truth” of how media consolidation has had disastrous effects on our democracy and the access to news and diverse points of views needed for self-governance.

Nevertheless, activists and academics needed to understand the power and enormity of the forces arrayed against them. Yes, advocates for media form have prepared for the big showdown, but so have the industry incumbents. These incumbents can afford to pay for top notch academic researchers to produce needed studies and support for deregulation on demand, then use their access and influence with law makers to push their deregulatory agenda.

At this point, Adelstein began to warm to his theme: how, since Reagan, the industry lobbyists and ideologues at the FCC and in Congress have systemically cut the FCC off from real industry data by eliminating mandatory reporting as “regulatory relief” from the “burden” of reporting accurate and timely information to the FCC (despite compiling exactly this kind of data for the SEC and industry analysts). Describing himself as a member of the “reality-based” community, Adelstein chastised the FCC majority and the pro-deregulation crowd as engaging in “faith-based regulation” and refusing to use real data to set policy. Indeed, because the FCC refuses to require industry reporting, and relies on the self-serving submissions of industry “hired guns” backed by a gaint “PR machine” designed to brainwash policymakers and the public, the supposed “expert agency” FCC has become “starved for data.” (See why I love this guy?)

As a consequence, the corporations the FCC is supposed to regulate have become the masters of the research and policy agenda at the FCC. Inconvenient research mysteriously disappears. By contrast, the FCC appears content to take the unverified word of industry at face value. Adelstein particularly singled out the Commission’s recent order preempting local franchising as an industry “advocacy piece” where staff could not come up with a single example of verified abuse by a franchising authority. Nevertheless, the FCC majority chose to believe the word of the corporations over the word of the public and their elected officials.

Adelstein also had harsh words for the way the FCC has handled the independent research studies for the media ownership proceeding. He observed that the FCC had outsourced 7 of the 10 studies and, with the exception of the study by Allen Hammond, none of the contractors had any background in media ownership.

Despite this “bleak picture” in which the agency prefers to indulge in “faith based research” rather than engage reality, Adelstein found reason for hope if we engage ourselves wisely and politically. He urged us to particpate in the process, to apply rigorous analysis to the industry studies and call out biased research quickly, loudly and thoroughly. At the same time, we must build our own record based on real research that addresses the questions the FCC must answer to comply with its legal obligations. Adelstein cited the Future of Music Coalition 2002 study on radio formats and the Children Now study on how permitting duopolies reduces children’s programming as good examples.

But Adelstein also praised doing basic research that could challenge the underlying assumptions of the superiority of the Libretarian free market model and restore a concept of the public interest. He urged us not to allow our opponents to frame the debate or to leave their premises unchallenged.

Adelstein closed by praising the media reform movement as wide and deep, a true civil rights movement for our day. While the other side is working harder, we must work harder. “You give me hope that truth and justice will prevail,” he concluded.

In response to a question from the audience, Adelstein reported that staff complained of being “squeezed” and unable to participate fully in debates because political pressure at the FCC suppressed views contrary to those of industry.

Adelstein also promised, in response to a different question, that he and Commissioner Copps would hold public hearings on cable public access (PEG), specifically on the impact of state franchising and the FCC’s recent action, and what the FCC can do to strengthen public access.

The rest of the morning was devoted to a “poster session” featuring research on a slew of relevant topics. A lot of good research on what is going on in Canada. I will need to flip through the two dozen or so papers I picked up and see what I can absorb. But I think it is safe to say that we have several disciplines represented here, as well as a very diverse audience of folks.

The afternoon saw a myriad of working groups. I went to the media ownership and spectrum ones before scooting out to another commitment.

I am optomistic that the number of academics who see no contradiction between rigorous research of academic quality and progressive advocacy is growing, and that the number of advocates who appreciate what the academic community has to offer is growing. I am hopefuly we are moving toward a true collaboration.

But more and more, I believe we need to develop a third piece of the puzzle. I call this the “Rosetta Stone” function. We need to develop a greater capacity to translate the 25 page policy paper into a 3 page concept paper, so those who need the 1 pager or even just the sound bite can refer back to something that will give them more depth. I do try to do some of that here (I shall leave it to the reader to decide if I am succesful), but not in any sort of systemic way. Hopefully, we will develop this capacity as the movement grows and matures.

Now the pre-conference is over and the main conference has begun. I’m off to the “Save the Internet” party and see if Memphis has any good music. Hopefully, I will be able to drag myself out of bed tomorrow for the “Super Bowl” kick off.

Stay tuned . . . .

One Comment

  1. You heard it! In answer to my question, Adelstein promised to hold hearings on PEG. Now it’s up to us PEG activists to make sure that happens.I think a good place to start would be Tucson. I just learned from Tucson access person Vikki Dempsey that Tucson’s former 9 PEG channels have been reduced to four, two of which are now only available on a high digital tier. This means a huge reduction in channel space. Tucson has been the shining star of PEG fulfillment, with a diverse and active community using all those 9 channels. A series of hearings there will show how the recent Arizona state franchise bill has eviscerated what was a national treasure.


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